Not much of a white Christmas, but we’ll take it! May your home be filled with the sounds of Christmas pleasures today. Ours is quiet, with soft holiday music in the background and the scent of a Christmas meal cooking. Feeling blessed. Virtual hugs to you all!
The Winter Solstice is always much-anticipated, not that in reality it seems much different from the days just prior and afterwards. It’s the message that counts, like turning the page on a calendar, or opening the first page of a new, blank journal to begin writing. It’s the KNOWING that this is a beginning, the first step toward spring. Yes, there’s a long winter still ahead, but knowing that the days truly are getting longer from now on is so very comforting. And don’t we all need a bit of comfort wherever we can find it these days?
Yesterday was a tiring day, but special as well. I was off early on the over-an-hour drive to take my mother for her annual hearing test. We might have postponed it since it was just announced that Indiana is now the 4th worst state to visit or be in virus-wise, but we both recognized that her hearing has worsened recently, so it was likely her hearing aid needed to be adjusted. We were the only people in the entire office other than the audiologist, who seemed to be constantly wiping everything, so I think it was a safe environment.
Lunch was our “Christmas” meal together for this year. It is strange not to have a family gathering, but it was certainly better than nothing. We had lasagna which was Mother’s choice! She’d never eaten it before, but she’d seen it on tv so we made two small loaf pans and put one in the freezer for later. It was such a hit that she wants to make two more pans next month. Even at 95, she still surprises me. We also had fruit that she had canned this summer, and the mince pies I made on Sunday.
While she rested, I ran to the grocery and got a few essentials for her and when I got back we had a cup of tea and chatted while I read some bills and mail that has print too small for her to read. No hugs, no kisses, and social distancing and hand-washing throughout the day, but at least we could be together. I left her “official” meal for Christmas Day in her refrigerator, so she won’t have to cook at all (roast chicken with cranberry sauce, cous-cous with peas and fresh mint, and Christmas cookies and more mince pies.) Long drive home, but the sunset (photo at the top) when I pulled into the driveway was lovely. A bit later, I looked out and the colors had changed dramatically.
It was a lovely ending to a long day. I’d hoped to see the planets aligned, but the clouds moved in thickly on strong, whistling winds. Today is gray and dreary, but calm. I’m going to go to the potager to dig some parsnips and carrots, and pull some leeks and turnips. Oh! I nearly forgot to mention that the first amaryllis bulb has buds beginning to open! It’s yet another reminder to look for, and enjoy the beauty that is all around us…in the sunset, the planets and stars, the luscious veggies, pretty bulbs, and most of all, the wonderful people in our lives.
The Winter Solstice has always been considered a day of magic, a day for hope. May you find comfort in this day, and in the lengthening days to come.
Late this autumn, I built four hardware cloth-covered frames to fit over the 6′ x 3′ raised beds in the potager. Three of them were covered with a layer of plastic and are now protecting winter vegetable crops (spinach, leeks, carrots, lettuces.) The fourth one was expected to be covered as well, but I ran out of plastic and in this virus-scary world, I hated to make a trip to town.
Then I began cleaning up the Lady Cottage and preparing it for winter. All the strings of onions and shallots had already been moved to the allium rack in the garage, and all the baskets of pumpkins and winter squashes. The sprayer had been emptied and cleaned. Any liquids that might freeze (like Bt) were also moved to the garage. As I worked, I had to move the string of empty plastic gallon jugs I’ve been collecting over the summer. These will be used for “winter seeding,” a technique used to stratify seeds of perennials that hurries them along a bit in a protected way.
The top 1/4 of the jug is cut 3/4 of the way around to form a “hinged” lid. Drainage holes are cut, a couple in the bottom and four about 1/4″ up from the bottom edge. The jug is filled a bit over halfway with moistened potting soil, or a seed starting mix. Seeds are sprinkled sparingly over the soil, and then they are covered, or not covered depending upon the type of seed and whether it needs light to germinate or darkness. The “lids” are closed and secured with a bit of duct tape. I usually put the cap on until there are signs of germination, then the cap is removed on sunny days to avoid cooking the seeds and on rainy days to allow some moisture in, but kept on during freezing temperatures to help hold in a bit of heat. The jugs are clustered together in a protected spot outdoors.
Here’s where the problem begins. The last couple of years the “protected” part has not worked so well due to those blasted raccoons, and possibly some opossums. They think it is great fun to knock the jugs over, dislodging fragile seedlings, and roll them around the deck or across the sidewalk. Sometimes they pry open the “lid” and dig around a bit. I’ve tried various locations, but they always find them. So, as I was working there came a “light bulb” moment. What if I put the jugs under the fourth berry box? It was designed to keep the raccoons out of the strawberries, so it should keep them from playing with my seeded jugs as well!
That’s the theory, and the plan. I’ll let you know if it works. Additionally, it will be good to find out if the berry boxes are as secure as I hope. If not, there will be time to redesign the closures well before the berries ripen!
I still get a lot of trade magazines, even though I no longer operate a commercial greenhouse, and it’s fun to read the articles to see what the trends are, or in this case to learn about some new seed offerings. The beautiful shasta daisy above, “Sweet Daisy Birdy” caught my eye immediately. The flowers are recurved (umbrella shaped) and often 5″ across! In a three year trial, the plants remained upright and sturdy, providing lots of eye candy in the garden, and proving an excellent cut flower as well. Listed as medium height. The centers have a frilly edge around a central yellow “eye.” It has proven reliable in Zones 3-8. I have several varieties of shastas, but there’s never too many so I’ll be searching for this one.
The second seeds I’ll be looking for is the first shallot to ever win an AAS designation. Reportedly easy from seed, these rosy-skinned shallots have excellent flavor and tenderness, and are earlier to mature than other seed-grown shallots. Eschalion “Creme Brulee” has a high sugar level that carmelizes well, and does not have a bitter aftertaste. I saw this one listed on Johnny’s Select Seeds, but I bet it sells out early! I love growing shallots, since they are easy and also they are generally expensive in the stores.
In another article, I learned that a company called Outstanding Seed is doing specialty breeding for “stackable” pumpkins. I’d never heard that term, but apparently it’s becoming all the rage for fall decor, stacking these flat pumpkins to make a pyramid. The company has three colors. The one above is called “Daybreak,” and fruits weigh about 25 lbs. There are shades of red, pink, salmon, blue and variations. This strain has strong powdery mildew resistance, and high yields. Isn’t it eye-catching?
The second color is “Lunar Blush” and it’s new for 2021. These are large, wide, flat fruits that are great for the base of a stack. Shades of champagne, pale pink, and seafoam green combine for lots of visual interest. Fruits average 48 lbs., with some growing to 60 lbs. so you’ll need a strong back to harvest these beauties! I love the color range of this one, but wish they were a bit smaller!
Also new for 2021 is “Lunar Shadow,” which grows to an average 23 lbs, with excellent yields, and also with good disease resistance. The only things I haven’t seen reported is how these stackable pumpkins taste! Outstanding Seed Company has over 40 varieties of specialty pumpkins, including some interesting “warty” ones. You can view their offerings on-line at www.outstandingseed.com However, they are a wholesale company, so unless you are a commercial grower, you probably can’t order seed directly from them. Look for their seeds from other sources.
UPDATE: E& R Seeds at 1356 E 200 S., Monroe, IN 46772 have ALL the stackable pumpkin seeds for sale, and lots, lots more. They are an Amish business, so no website or credit card orders. You can call and request their nearly 200 page catalog, at 260-692-6827. Visit them (dress warm, there’s no central heat) and be amazed!
This Saturday began with pounding rain and whistling winds here in central Indiana. Surprisingly, a break in the clouds allowed the sun to shine so I hurried out with my camera. First stop was to see if the potted arborvitae that was decked out in lights yesterday was still upright. It was, but the wind had shaken many of the lights loose from the branches. It’s too muddy to fix them now, but maybe later on today I can do it, plus add the timer that I finally found!
Knowing that the rain would probably return, the next task was to harvest some veggies from the potager. There’s still another entire bed of “Tom Thumb” lettuces, but this is the last of a bed whose flimsy row cover blew off. We are eating the turnips raw as an early “appetizer” because they are so sweet, having survived several frosts and freezes so I only harvest one at a time. The carrots are being dug as needed, and are also wonderfully sweet and crisp.
December has been so mild that many things are popping up here and there. This self-seeded purple mustard is getting a red tinge as the temperatures fall. Under the shelter of its leaves lots of tiny chamomile seedlings have emerged.
This patch of volunteer “Red Deer Tongue” lettuces made me smile, looking so fresh with rain droplets and so colorful. I’ve been nibbling a leaf here and there as I finished up berry boxes this week. Here’s the final one!
Berry box number 3 has its plastic cover and is sheltering another batch of spinach seedlings. However, plans for #4 have been altered to require no plastic for its purpose, so it’s officially finished as well. More on that in another post. And finally, as the snowmen and garlanding were hung on the potager’s front fence, this patch of emerging bulbs was spotted!
If I had some mulch, I’d toss some on top of these early risers, because the cold, cold weather is still to come. But, I’ve learned that even if they get their tops frozen, they will usually bloom come what may. I view them as a sign of hope, that things will indeed get brighter and better, and that spring will come to cheer us!
That’s my Six for this mid-December. For lots more “Sixes” from other gardeners across the globe, visit The Propagator, who hosts this meme.
One of the things I enjoy doing during the winter months is going through the many photos of the gardens taken in past years. Last winter, I noticed that there were very few of the Addition Garden. In looking more carefully at those few, it was obvious that the lack of photos was due to the lack of interesting plants, little color, and lack of form. So, part of last winter’s project was to make a plan to add some new plants there.
The Addition Garden has some challenges. The top part is against the west side of our house. In summer, the brick gets quite hot and reflects heat back against the plants. Lots of plants don’t like that much heat. Secondly, it’s on a slope so moisture seeps away quickly, making it a desert-like place. It’s especially dry over the winter months. Thirdly, it has “builder’s crap” as soil, and I admit I haven’t given this garden much love over the years it’s been there. I started to say “the few years” since it’s been built but I suddenly realized that was 2006, so I have no excuse! Lots of plants have been put in there, but only some survive the harsh conditions: Rue, always tough daylilies, butterflyweed, a threadleaf coreopsis, the ever-durable rudbeckia. Most years, “Blue Bedder” salvia returns as well. I like the blue against the “apricot/gold” brick so decided to add more blue blooms.
And then the retaining wall collapsed and had to be replaced so the entire west section was destroyed. Once the new wall was in, the daylilies were replanted and a few tulip bulbs were added.
The Addition Garden is the forgotten child. It is rare if anyone besides me actually sees it. It tends to get only the leftovers, after all the other gardens have received the best of the annuals. I’ve written before that more perennials are being added to my gardens, because I realize that I won’t be able to grow 4,000 annuals from seed in my dotage. The Addition Garden was a good place to begin making changes. Seeds for some heat tolerant perennials were ordered and seeded. Since garden center shopping was not an option in 2020, some flats of perennial plugs were ordered on-line.
To fill in lots of bare space between slow-growing perennial babies, “Apricot Lemonade” cosmos was added…what a disappointment that was in terms of flowers, but the airy foliage helped cover a lot of bareness below.
The threadleaf coreopsis was just beginning to bloom, and an edging of annual “Profusion Apricot” zinnias were added.
When the perennial plugs arrived, several tritoma (Red Hot poker plants) were added along with a few “Adobe Orange” echinacea. Both of those should be fine in this location. A few leftover seed-grown hollyhocks were added along the house wall to give some vertical interest.
The blue-green rue in the background will be echoed with the blue-green foliage of the blue flax, which you can barely see on the center left edge of the photo. The tritoma’s sword-like foliage will echo the daylilies. The leathery salvia leaves will contrast with the fine, threadleaf coreopsis….at least that’s the vision!
It will be interesting to see what survives the winter, and which of the new perennials begin to bloom first. It will be a surprise if any of the seed-grown ones bloom this year, but maybe some of the plugs will. Still debating what annual to use as “filler” until the perennials shoulder together. Maybe I’ll just scatter some of the volunteer rudbeckia that come up too close to the edge throughout the beds. There’s certainly no rush to decide…there’s a long, long winter for planning!
This year, there was less trouble with squash bugs and borers than in past years in the potager. I’m crediting this fellow (although not being an amphibian specialist, he could very well be a “she!”) I think it’s a Fowler’s Toad, although again I’m not a proper authority for identification, but they are supposedly common in our area, and the photo was the closest of any I found. My toad is about 3″ long when sitting and 2″ wide. They feed on insects and slugs. This year it lived under the “Ronde de Nice” squash plant, a lovely heirloom from France that produces a ball-shaped summer squash with a light green skin that has slightly darker green markings. I encouraged the toad to stay in that area by providing an overturned terra cotta pot that had a piece missing from it’s edge, making it the perfect toad abode.
I had been watching and enjoying seeing the toad whenever I watered the squash plants. However, one day he was missing so I went searching. Observing some odd movement at the nearby strawberry bed, I went to investigate. Imagine my surprise when I saw my toad frantically trying to hop with one leg. His other leg was completely swallowed by a 12″ long snake! I quickly pressed on the snake’s tail with my foot, adding enough pressure gradually that the snake eventually released the leg. The snake was quickly relocated to the woods, and I hurried back to check on the toad. There was a puncture mark on his leg, and he seemed exhausted, and probably traumatized. I gently picked him up and returned him to the squash bed. Happily, he completely recovered. I saw him almost daily until the cold weather came. I assume he has found a safe place to spend the winter, and certainly hope he returns come spring.
The other tactic employed this year was wrapping the squash stems from the ground up to the first branches with steel wool. I did need to occasionally add more as the plant grew, but there was definitely less borer damage than in prior years. This year I wrapped half the plants and left the other half unwrapped as a test. The wrapped plants definitely fared better. Next year, I will wrap all the squash base stems except the butternuts, which never seem to be bothered with borers. The most susceptible seems to be the “Orange Magic” squash, but it seems if I plant them later they do better. I still did a lot of bug removal, and checked and removed eggs when I could but if one grows a lot of squash, that can be a challenge. Hopefully, in the future there will be more and more toads to be the First Responders in the bug battle.
Overall, November seems like it was a good month even with the scaled-down Thanksgiving “celebrations.” There were 20 beautiful, warm days for outdoor work and below normal precipitation once again. The grain-hauling trucks rumbled by day and night all through the month. The farmers were able to get a lot of drainage work done and lime or manure spread on fields. The wheat is up and looking good for this late in the year. The election was finally over, and without the worst-case scenario of civil war, and although the Covid numbers jumped dramatically, overall things seemed rather calm compared to the prior months. The clocks were set back, and I’m not sure my internal clock has adjusted still. College football returned, and the first college basketball games began, so life seemed a little more normal.
During November, the bulbs were all planted, and there was lots of tidying up in the gardens. The tender plants have all been moved indoors, and any “tender” crops have been harvested and brought into the garage or preserved. If you look at the photo, you can see rows of garlic emerging in some beds, and the two plastic-covered berry box/cold frames that are now protecting crops that will be harvested in the coming months. The beds that are empty have received a good layer of homemade compost, and “sheet” composting has begun in some beds where the soil level is a bit low. The crucial work is done. Prep for winter is far from over though, since none of the deck planters have been trimmed, none of the summer furniture has been stored yet, and there are still hoses to be rolled up and stored away. Do notice how pretty the newly stained beds and top rail look in the photo. It’s pretty doubtful that any more staining/sealing will be accomplished until spring, but still hopeful that the last two berry boxes will get built soon.
Since the temperatures were dropping, on the final day of November one patch of leeks was dug. The photo is of the largest leek I’ve ever grown, weighing in at over 1.5 lbs. A reference object would have helped you understand the size, but the bulb was 4″ in diameter at the base! There is still one bed unprotected to be dug,(just right of the closest berry box in the photo) and under the taller berry box there is half a bed of leeks and half a bed of carrots, so there’s lots of leek and potato soup in our future, and maybe a leek pie or two!
Total harvest from the potager for November was 53.5 lbs, up from 38 lbs. last year. This year’s harvest was mostly leeks, red cabbage, carrots, beets, lettuces, turnips, broccoli raab, radishes, and kohlrabi, along with lots of herbs. There are still lots of hardy crops to be harvested in December. The only preserving was 11 pt. of pickled beets and some jars and tins of dried herbs. Everything else was eaten fresh, or is in baskets in the garage, which was the goal for this year: to eat more “fresh” rather than canning or freezing so much.
The first amaryllis bulb was planted on November 8th. It’s the one on the right. The one on the left was just planted November 29th, but it’s catching up. I should have expected that since the one on the left is a “Christmas” amaryllis. They are called that in the catalogs because they are the ones that come from warmer climates like South America, Mexico, or Africa and produce flowers very quickly so they are the ones generally mass-produced by commercial greenhouses for the holidays. The bulbs are generally a bit smaller, too. The bulb on the right is from Holland and will take longer to come into flower, but it will be worth the wait! So, when you are purchasing amaryllis bulbs, look for their place of origin to know if they are quick or slow. I like to have amaryllis bulbs coming into flower when the Christmas decor is taken down, so the house doesn’t seem so empty and gloomy without all that glitter and lights. The hyacinth bulbs are currently chilling in the refrigerator, and will be planted in January, and I kept one little package of species tulips to pot up as well.
That’s the November monthly review for 2020. No complaints really, and definitely giving thanks for all the blessings of the month.
and on the ground! December 1st began with a light drizzle that turned into a lovely snowfall. The first real (enough to track a cat) snowfall is always magical. Everything looks so pristine and dazzling with that sparkling frosting. It was pretty to view out the windows, but I was glad to be able to remain indoors as the temperatures dropped, and dropped some more. On Tuesday morn an unusual event occurred. Interstate 69 was actually closed in our area due to ice and dangerous driving conditions. That rarely happens, but of course, this is 2020 so we should expect the unexpected.
I haven’t mentioned Covid lately, but it has definitely expanded rapidly in our area. Our tiny little county of about 10,000 sturdy folks has now suddenly jumped to over 600 cases, and our status color is “purple,” meaning we have one of the highest infection rates in the state. We won’t be going anywhere for a good while.
Many of you did lots of cleaning, sorting, and DIY projects during the earlier lockdowns, but I was busy in the gardens. Now, however there’s no excuse so yesterday I defrosted the kitchen freezer and took stock of the contents and organized packages as they were returned. Two packages had been lurking in the bottom since 2018, so I let them defrost and when I still couldn’t identify the contents, out they went! I hate food waste, but in this case it was the only action since I don’t own a pig! I’m going to do at least one drawer or shelf a day and work my way through the house. It could get very interesting?!?
Meanwhile, another seed catalog (SeedsNSuch) arrived, and another seed order. This one was a small order from family-owned Nichols Garden Nursery in Oregon. They have a huge array of herb and vegetable seeds, garlic varieties and a nice selection of flowers. I’ve been to their store and gardens and met some of the family, so if you are looking for a good source for seeds, check out their catalog here. I took advantage of their Black Friday Specials and purchased a pound of buckwheat seed, which I haven’t grown since my homesteading days. The plan is to use some as a green manure crop. Buckwheat has tender, hollow stems in its early growth, so it’s easy to dig in and decomposes quickly. One bed will be allowed to flower for the bees and other pollinators who adore those small white flowers. And once the bees have finished, the grain will be allowed to form and harvested. I used to grow all my grains, scythe it, dry it, thresh it and grind it into flour. The flour mill is still down on the basement shelves, and it will be fun to put it to use again. Buckwheat pancakes anyone?
The two seed sources I use most were already out of cipollini seeds even though I ordered last month! Luckily, Nichols still had some of the true flattened white ones. Salsify also made the list. I haven’t grown it since I sold the herb farm, although I’ve planted the old seed that was left. Obviously, it was time for some fresh seed. If you haven’t grown salsify, give it a try. Grows like a carrot or parsnip, but tastes like an oyster (but with better texture!!) and makes a great soup just cooked, diced, in hot milk with a generous amount of butter, salt and pepper. Or, cook and mash, mix with cracker crumbs, an egg, some parsley, salt and pepper, form into “cakes” and fry in butter until nicely browned. Great served with some tartar sauce or Dijon mustard mixed with a bit of mayo. Stores well, but usually I clean and cook all the roots, slice them into pennies, cook them until just tender, and then freeze them in pint cartons, which is just the right amount for soup or cakes for two people.
I keep reading glowing reports about Borlotto beans, so I’m going to give them a try. Beans are so easy. These are Borlotto Cranberry, a bush type heirloom, so I’ll have to figure out a timing so they don’t cross pollinate with other beans if I want to save the seeds. And lastly, a flower. Last year I seeded white flowered money plant (lunaria) but only a half dozen plants germinated and grew. I transplanted them into a perfect, lightly shaded spot, but they were dug out by critters several times, and then later on all but one were eaten! I love lunaria, or honesty, so I’m giving it another try and this time I’ll put the leftover hardware cloth from making the berry boxes around and over them! I used to grow armfuls of the purple-flowered money plant and we sold big bouquets of them during the late summer and autumn. It’s a biennial and is usually a good self-seeder once it gets established.
I also baked a pumpkin cake for my mother’s 95th birthday, so there are only two pumpkins left to bake from this year’s harvest. Not a worry, since I found several cartons of pumpkin in the freezer. I really want to make pumpkin ravioli in sage/butter sauce with walnuts. Now that winter is here, and I’m staying home, there’s no reason not to (except the expanding waistline!) I haven’t made pasta other than gnocchi since our cooking class in Italy a few years ago, so it will be a challenge! What new things are you doing this winter?
This Six on Saturday is a mixture of six things that are making the days more cheery. First of all, the 2020 Christmas tree, which is even more appreciated this year than it has been sometimes in others. We didn’t have a tree last year, because we went to Italy. This year, I only put on the ornaments that have meaning, collected during our travels, made or given by our kids, grandkids or other loved ones, or inherited from family members that are now gone. Decorating it certainly triggered a lot of great memories.
Last year, the nutcrackers on the mantle were our only decorations. They always make me smile and the variety is so appealing. The two on the coffee table are smokers, which have been in use now with a variety of incense cones: sandalwood, pine, lavender, cinnamon and others that my daughter sends me from Germany.
Since there will be no parties or dinners, the nutcrackers that normally decorate the kitchen shelf (which is now filled with canned foods) are on the buffet. I’ve decided not to put the rest of the nutcrackers out this year since it’s just the two of us. And before you think gardening has taken a back seat this year, here’s number 4:
The two berry boxes that are built got their plastic yesterday, just in time to collect a bit of heat from this morning’s sunshine before our temps drop into the low 20’s, with snow on the way. Obviously, I still need to dig the leeks, which will happen after the IU game today.
All the plants have now been moved into the basement. As always, a few days after being moved the lemon verbena dropped all its leaves. Knowing that, a clean sheet was spread under the pot so the leaves can be collected easily. Now they will finish drying on the dining room table before finding their way to the teapot! And lastly
The Geo seeds that arrived yesterday have been sorted, and those that need stratification are now in the freezer. While I watch the IU game, I think I’ll bring down the seed box and begin to organize it (by planting date) and add the two seed orders that have come. Nothing is more cheery than beginning to plan for spring!
So that’s six things that are making my days brighter. For more (are probably far more interesting) Six on Saturday offerings, visit The Propagator, who hosts this meme.